Mapula Lodge was the last stop on our 16-day journey that began in Cape Town (originating in Chicago), South Africa, so we had stayed in charming lodges and classy hotels along the way. This one–to the remote reaches of Okavango Delta in Botswana–was the most magnificent in a one-with-nature, take-your-breath-every-minute way.
Mapula’s greatest amenity is the unbounded, untainted beauty that surrounds it.
To get there, we took an hour-long flight in a 7-seater airplane operated by a regional shuttle, Major Blue Air, from Kasane Airport in the northeast corner of Botswana. Major Blue Air is the only way to get to the handful of lodges and camps that dot the Delta. There are few roads, and most of those are underwater much of the year. We flew over expanses of gray-and-brown-mottled terrain, passing the occasional mud flat, then more drabness. As we got closer, we could see patches of puke-greenish foliage and rivulets of silvered water that gradually became swampy. Zoom in with your smartphone or pocket cam, and those dark-gray beanie figures are herds of elephants or hippos.
We landed on a tan scratch of packed dirt where amiable rangers Albert and Carl awaited in a (surprisingly) pristine Toyota Defender. A small screened-in structure with a hand-painted sign reading “Xarakai Airport Welcome” offered scant protection from the scorching sun.
“Here are your vegetables,” said our pilot to the rangers, handing them a white plastic grocery bag. He had been given a shopping list of ingredients by Mapula’s chef.
The Mapula Lodge, our destination, was an hour’s drive, give or take, depending on how many birds and animals we stopped to admire and photograph.
Although July was the dry season, there was plenty of water for us to navigate. Most of it we easily plowed through in our powerful vehicle, but the wetland adjacent to Mapula required infrastructure. The bridge was constructed of two lines of timbers laid just wide enough to accommodate the wheels and a guardrail to keep the Defender on track. In between the timbers was–NOTHING. Cruising over it was freaky, but Albert assured us it was much safer than the “old bridge.”
During the wet season, we would have been picked up by boat.
We arrived at the lodge and were greeted with refreshment and music. The nine chalets overlook the wetland, which is home to tall grasses, water lilies and hippos. Many hippos. The chalets are decorated with primitive safari-camp charm: luxurious linens, towels and pillows; rattan seating cushioned in luxe tribal prints; metal-tub sinks and baths; handmade soaps; and an outdoor shower overlooking hippo-land. Beyond the chalets and open-air lounge and dining terrace is more wetland with more hippos. They moan day and night.
The staff took care to meet every request, despite the fact that the nearest Target store had to be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away: No red meat for my husband, a softer pillow for me. Alexander is a painstaking chef and bartender, and Oscar (who logged years working on cruise ships) aims to please. All meals and twice-daily excursions were included. One evening after dinner the staff entertained us with a hootenanny of tribal songs and dances. The nights were almost wintry, but hot-water bottles seemed to magically appear under the bed-covers and kept us toasty until dawn.
Albert and Carl are enthusiastic guides whose knowledge of birds is encyclopedic. A couple of rare sightings that left us awestruck: a tower of 24 giraffes in one area–the most Albert said he’d ever seen. And three lions devouring an unlucky buffalo. When the guides get out their cameras, you know you’ve seen something amazing!
After three days it was time make our way back over the timber bridge, past the unlucky and now skeletonized buffalo to the dusty airstrip and 7-seater plane. We hugged and said farewell to Oscar and the staff, standing beneath an enormous shade tree, promising a return that probably will not happen. Then someone said to look upward. I did. Beneath the canopy was a colony of hundreds of tiny bats. They had been there the entire time.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My venture to Botswana was not a media trip. My husband and I paid full freight to get there, and it was not cheap. Mapula Lodge is not the destination for everyone. The location is really remote. I mean, really. There’s no Wi-Fi or heat or shopping (there is a small unheated swimming pool). Heck, there’s no electricity in the chalets. Daily land and water excursions are scheduled for sunrise and sunset. That’s when the wildlife is most active. The mornings can be briskly cold, perhaps 40 degrees when we were there, but the staff provided us with heavy ponchos. (The sun-drenched afternoons were in the 80-range.) If you truly can’t “get away from it all,” don’t ruin the experience for the rest of us with your whining. Please stay home.